New Year, new you? Don't you just hate those articles that breed and fester in the newspapers at the beginning of January? They're usually illustrated with a tape measure held loosely round an impossibly small waist and diagrams of sit-ups and squats. All they succeed in doing is making you feel bad about your flaws.
Insidiously, over the past decade or so, a new cult of physical perfectibility has crossed the Atlantic, and it has been greedily sucking us in. We're now told we have to have perfect nails and perfect hair, at all times, and perfect teeth. Our bodies have to be the perfect shape. And we are supposed to invest time, money and physical discomfort into trying, Canute-like, to resist the natural effects that age and gravity have on the human body.
The more we sign up to this cult, the more depressed and discontented we feel. We are indoctrinated to believe we'll be happier if our faces are smoother, our teeth whiter or our handbags blingier, when in fact, we'll end up more miserable and impoverished. Who wins? Only the companies selling us the products.
So let's all make a New Year's resolution that will leave us richer, happier and more comfortable in our skins. Let's resist the pressure to follow expensive beauty-maintenance regimes, to inject our skin with poisons or to buy anything with the toxic prefix "must-have". Repeat after me: "No-one's going to tell me what I must have, least of all the fashion department of a newspaper or magazine."
Before you all write in, I know this paper is as bad as any. A few weeks ago, our fashion page ran a "Cheap and Chic" spread. Oh good, I thought, I'll find the best outfits at Primark and George at Asda. I wish. One dress cost – I kid you not – more than £700, and there was a pair of shoes for £310. On what planet can these be thought of as bargains? And how many Independent readers have such cash to spare?
I can't imagine spending £700 on a dress. Not only could I not afford to; even if I could, there are so many better uses for a huge sum like that than a garment that I might wear only a few times. It seems almost criminally extravagant when you can buy delightful dresses on the high street for a tenth or a twentieth of the price.
That's the weird thing about this obsession with designer tat. Cheap tat has never been better. These days, you can kit yourself out with great clothes at Topshop, Zara or H&M. So why would you want to spend £700 on a dress? Or £850, the average price of a handbag at Selfridges?
It's not just money we're expected to spend these days. It's also time, effort and pain. I can't think who, apart from a banker's wife, has the time or energy for a weekly manicure and a daily blow-dry. New Yorkers somehow squeeze it in, but I've always thought one of the many advantages of being British is that we don't live under that pressure. It was quite charming that we were prepared, three times in a row, to elect a prime minister – Tony Blair – with snaggly teeth, and that he never felt the need to have them straightened. I hope he isn't the last of that line.
If we women were to follow the dictates of the beauty editors, we could fill most hours of the day buffing, cleansing, toning, conditioning, exfoliating and, for all I know, defibrillating, to get our bodies, faces and hair to the perfect pitch of shininess and polished beauty. But would anyone but ourselves notice?
That's the thing. Men don't notice, for sure. As long as we don't smell, have a beard or ooze grossly out of our clothes, men are much more tolerant of what we look like than we are. They have no idea whether our clothes and bags are designer or M&S. They might prefer us in high heels, but to them, Jimmy Choos are no more seductive than Office.
Of course, it's important to do basic grooming. No one likes dirty fingernails, BO, bad breath or sprouting nose hair. You should always buy clothes that fit well and flatter you, but they don't have to be expensive. And it's good to be able to brush up now and then to look stunning for a party. But it's the regular day-in-day-out pressure to be immaculate that's worth resisting. Life's too short.
A beauty journalist wrote over the weekend about the agony of going for a week without wearing make-up. Yet both her friends and her boyfriend said afterwards they preferred her au naturel. Still she fell upon her make-up bag at the end of the week like a box of chocolates at the end of Lent.
The beautiful and intelligent aren't immune. Helena Bonham Carter, for instance, is convinced that her thighs are awful. Many who watched the dramatisation of Nigel Slater's Toast last week would have seen men drool over said thighs glimpsed over stocking tops as Bonham Carter knelt on the kitchen floor to clean a cupboard.
Women are famously insecure about their bodies. Even those of a perfect size tend to think of themselves as "fat". Now, with the advent of Botox and fillers, we're also supposed to hate the natural process of ageing. Wrinkles are to be dreaded and driven away, not celebrated as characterful. Some middle-aged men have succumbed to this insecurity, too: you can recognise them by their polyester-white teeth and frozen foreheads.
But it doesn't work. It just doesn't. The more you fixate on your appearance, the more you notice your flaws. If you Botox your forehead, you'll start to care about your crow's feet or your smile lines. Once your face is as smooth as an Ikea table-top, you'll start to notice that your neck is going crepey. And so on.
It's the same with clothes and shoes and bags. You can be spending thousands of pounds a year and still you'll be craving the next fashion fix and lamenting that your bag is so "last season". Meanwhile, you'll be run ragged by the "need" to squeeze a manicure or a blow-dry into your frantic timetable. You won't be any happier. And you certainly won't be content.
Contentment is what we should be striving for – and then we can stop striving. To be content with our looks, to accept our flaws, to realise that we can be attractive enough without having to resemble an airbrushed Angelina Jolie or George Clooney. To understand that a ravishing smile or the set of our shoulders can improve our looks far more effectively than a £100 face cream or a £1,000 bag.
With contentment comes confidence. And with confidence comes beauty. If you feel good about yourself, you start to look good – even if you are 80 years old, wrinkly and wise. Get a decent haircut by all means: unlike clothes, you wear the same hair every day. But otherwise, let's celebrate the New Year by sticking two fingers up at the beauty police.
You'll feel better inside. You'll look better outside. You'll save loads of money and you'll be happier than your friends who are still on the treadmill. So rise up and drink a toast with me to 2011 and the end of tyranny! New Year, new you.
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